29 August 2012

Umbria III - The Valnerina

The Heart of Italy – Part III

The Valnerina - the green heart of Italy

Question:  What do New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Sant’Anatolia di Narco have in common?

Answer:  Cannabis.

Cannabis Sativa.  Hemp.  All four places have Hemp Museums.
Of course…….

Sant’Anatolia di Narco is a village of some 600 inhabitants which is situated at 328 metres above sea level about half way up the Valnerina, or the Valley of the River Nera.  Thanks to a post-97 earthquake bypass operation it is also on the route from Spoleto to Norcia, but that’s another story.  The origins of the village go back to the 8th century BC, but most of what you see today is medieval or later.  Saint Anatolia was a young Roman lady executed for her Christian beliefs in the year 253. 

The name Narco, but the way, has nothing to do with narcotics.  It may derive from a French family who once dominated the area, or from a corruption of the river’s name, or from the ancient people the Sabini Naharci.  It is not Saint Anatolia of the Narcotics.

A cart full of hemp 

The museum, proper name Museo della Canapa (Hemp Museum), is housed in the former Town Hall, tucked into the medieval core of the village next to the Church of Sant’Anatolia.  It is one branch of the Valnerina Ecomuseum and tells the story of the production and uses of hemp, principally in textiles and ropes.  The name Canapine which features in some villages in the region and which is applied also to the banks of the River Nera, means “hemp lands” and is testimony to the importance given to the cultivation of this plant and its uses in the past.  In a series of rooms, you can follow the story of this valuable plant, from retting, through braking, to carding, spinning, warping and weaving.  At the end of your visit you see an eighteenth century loom which produced household fabrics for the Santucci family until the 1950s.  It is both fascinating and beautifully presented.

We stay in the ex-convent of Santa Croce (www.conventodisantacroce.com) which was once the home of Franciscan Friars and was built in the thirteenth century, just outside the town walls.  It is a peaceful and very comfortable place, with excellent food and very friendly service.  The walls and ceilings display remnants of religious frescoes, and it is said that the vivid colours and creative designs may have been inspired by a particular plant that grew in the monastery garden; a plant which is now remembered in the nearby museum. 

I don’t believe it!

The Valnerina, one of the most beautiful valleys in the heart of Italy, is peppered with villages, castles and religious houses, from Oratories, such as that of Santa Maria delle Grazie at Sant’Anatolia, to the gracious independence of the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle.  On the way you pass, or stop to dine in, the village of Scheggino, which clings to the left bank of the Nera and steeply rises from it in winding, stepped alleys.  The Osteria Baciafemmine (www.osteriabaciafemmine.it) which occupies a connected series of stables and cellars, is well worth stopping for, but if it is a combination of the de luxe and spiritual isolation you seek you must make a detour to l’Abbazia di San Pietro. 

Osteria Baciafemmine

When I first saw this place it was in a sad state of disrepair; although the church was clad in scaffolding, the place was deserted and closed up.  Nevertheless I was struck by its harmonious structure and by the stunning setting, surrounded by wooded hillsides but with a view down the valley into a shining distance of interwoven blue and gold.

L'Abbazia di San Pietro in Valle

Now, as well as being able to study the twelfth century frescoes in the nave, particularly those that tell stories from the Old Testament, you can stay in one of the suites that have been immaculately remodelled within the Benedictine Monastery (http://www.sanpietroinvalle.com/index.php).  If you do so, you can take breakfast in the refectory, or in the cloisters.  And without walking more than a few paces through the garden, you dine at the Ristorante Hora Media.  Just like the monks in olden times!  In fact you could bring your colleagues for a weekend of team building, with rafting, caving, climbing and a medieval banquet; or you could come alone for spiritual peace, a sauna and some fire-walking.  This place has it all!

The frescoed apse of the church of San Pietro in Valle

We move on, down the valley, going with the flow of traffic toward Terni.  But there is just time to admire the spectacular Cascata delle Marmore, one of the natural wonders of Italy.  In the unspoilt valley, where trees grow miraculously from the vertical cliffs, and a perpetual stream launches itself into 165 metres of air, spraying the ferns and rocks to create mist and rainbow effects with the delicate music of droplets splitting into spray.

La Cascata delle Marmore - about twenty years ago

Or so it was.

The waterfalls have been Disneyfied!  A vast car park means that you have to queue for tickets to gain admission to the spectacle.  And you have to be there at the right time, because they turn it off in the afternoon and at night to pump the water back up, so that now, instead of a gentle splashing you will hear a siren blast and then a furious roar, as tonnes of water are released to crash violently to the valley floor, smashing their atoms as they hit the three rocky levels on the way down.

OK, so it never was natural….. it was actually the engineering brainchild of a roman consul in the third century BC and it has been reworked several times in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries before now.

But when we passed by some twenty years ago, it really did seem an awful lot more natural!  Now, to return to the metaphor of the heart, a pacemaker has been fitted, the arteries have been cleaned out, the valves repaired, and the beating heart of Italy is (almost) as good as new.

Ah well!  Change is not always for the worse!

The cloister of San Pietro in Valley - tables for breakfast!

28 August 2012

A night in Umbria

COUNTRY Resort Santa Croce

A Night with the Friars

“They say,” our host, Annalisa, gestures in assurance that she did not invent this, “that the Friars grew a certain herb in their garden, which may account for the vibrant colours in their frescos.”

Surprisingly, the tiny (600 inhabitant) town of Sant’Anatolia di Narco has a Hemp Museum, which is not something you might expect outside of Amsterdam, and this makes me wonder whether Annalisa’s story has foundation.  Cannabis Sativa, or Indian Hemp, was cultivated throughout Umbria until the middle of the last century.  However the use of hemp that the museum commemorates is that of making cloth.  Did the Franciscans really spend their time painting ceilings and walls under the influence of weed?

I think it unlikely, though it would make an interesting Art History project!  The convent had its origins, outside the fortified city walls, in the thirteenth century and then took its current form in 1610 when it became occupied by Franciscans.  In recent years, although still owned by the Diocese, it has had new life breathed into it as an atmospheric hotel, beautifully presented and lovingly maintained by Annalisa, her daughter Luana and her partner Paolo. The warmth of their hospitality and the still serenity of the structure give no impression of a hippie colony, although a glass of Campari at the bar does no harm after a busy day sightseeing!

Sant’Anatolia is one of several villages in the Nera valley.  Its position is perfect for exploring the green heart of Italy, being only 10 kilometres from Spoleto (via a useful tunnel) and less than an hour from Assisi.  It is also close to the gastronomic, medieval town of Norcia, the wilds of the Monti Sibillini National Park and the power of the Marmore waterfalls (much more exciting than you would think).  What’s more there’s paragliding from the Great Plain of Castelluccio or canoeing or rafting on the Nera.

After a day’s excursion, we retire to our room, named after Fra Eutizio, a character from I Promessi Sposi, and relax in its cool tranquillity.  Then, down the marble stairs, under the frescoed ceilings showing the life of Giovanni da Capestrano, and into the refectory, where Annalisa revives us with her cooking, specialising in using local ingredients, while Paolo serves wines from tiny Umbrian estates. 

If the friars lived like this, they had no need of other stimulants!


Richard Gibbs

October 8th 2012

This was unsuccessfully entered for the 2012 Guardian Travel Writing Competition (an unusual place to stay), but was not even a runner-up:  probably far too slow to be more than a walk-on part!

Umbria II - Norcia

The Heart of Italy – Part II

Guardians of Norcia!

There are lions in Norcia.  Unusual to find at 604 metres above sea level in the Monti Sibillini, but two magnificent cats benevolently guard the Palazzo Comunale.  They won’t hurt you.

There are wild boar in Norcia too.  But they won’t hurt you either, as most of them have been made into sausages, for which this town is justly famous, and their heads, sometimes sporting raybans, others with cigarettes tucked in by their tusks, are mounted above the doors of food shops .  In fact, long before I made the trek up the Italian aorta to this captivating town, I frequented a Norcineria in Rome, buying delicious salami and ham, without realising that the name denoted the origin of these products.  Later on, my neighbour, Marco, drove up here every day to pick up his van to deliver such delicacies to outlets throughout Umbria and Lazio, returning late in the evening, with wax paper packets of strongly flavoured meats for his family and friends.

The Palazzo Comunale with St Benedict's Church on the right

Norcia is lucky to be alive.  This little place (population less than 5,000) has suffered many heart attacks in its long long history, with one in 1859 so violent that a law was then passed that no building may be taller than 12.5 metres, or a maximum of three storeys.  In 1979 it was quaked again so hard that when we first visited ten years after that many buildings were still in restauro, though actually the fourteenth century walls and some palaces are so solid that it will take more than a mere terremoto to damage them.  Indeed, we used to stay in the Hotel Grotta Azzurra (home of the excellent Granaro del Monte restaurant) which had walls so thick our radio baby alarm would only work just outside the bedroom door, so our plans for a restful, conscience-free dinner downstairs whilst the infant dozed aloft were cut very short indeed.

All this aside, there is a more important reason for Norcia to be on the map.  In the year 480 AD it was the birthplace of Saint Benedict and his twin sister Saint Scholastica, and therefore, in truth, Norcia is the birthplace of western monasticism.  His inspiration and his Holy Rule, written at Monte Cassino, where he founded the Abbey in 529, with its insistence on a balance of Work and Prayer, became the key strength of religious orders through the dark ages, through the medieval period, through the renaissance and into the modern era, with a Monastery in his name still functioning over his birthplace, the remains of which can be seen within the church of San Benedetto, which is built on the site of the Roman Basilica.

Roman remains - the birthplace of Saint Benedict

The area around Norcia, a fertile plain named after Santa Scolastica, is extraordinarily productive, which is why the town is so famous for its food (not only boar and pork products, but also rice, lentils and truffles and cheeses).  The Romans had engineered an irrigation system here, but it lay abandoned for centuries until local monks revived it in the Middle Ages.  The system is known here as Le Marcite, after the Italian word for rotten, as the last crop each year is left to rot to refertilise the ground.  The system utilises spring water at a constant temperature of 10ยบ, which, if kept flowing, will not freeze in winter and so allows for several harvests each year.

Norcia and the Plain of Santa Scolastica

Within a few kilometres of Norcia rise the Monti Sibillini, an area now protected by the status of National Park.  And within the park, is the hill town of Preci, famous for its Scuola Chirurgica Preciana (school of Surgery) which began life in the Benedictine Abbey of San Eutizio nearby, (it was from this school that Durante Scacchi and his brother Francesco travelled to England in 1588 to perform a cataract operation on Queen Elizabeth I).  The Abbey, a stone complex which clings to a wooded hillside, is in good condition and still in use, and our recent visit coincided with a large group of teenagers from Rome staying for their annual retreat. 

The Abbey was founded by Syrian monks in the fifth century and caves in the cliffs were occupied by hermits in this period.  Later it became a powerful centre and it is closely linked with Saint Benedict and the rise of his order.  At the peak of its influence it ruled over some 100 churches and neighbouring castles, and its scriptorium produced the Confessio Eutiziana in 1095, one of the first religious texts to have been written in the Italian language (the vernacular) rather than Latin.

We pause for thought in the crypt of the church, light glowing in from the doorway.  On our way out through a deeply shaded arch an old woman and her handicapped daughter offer us a chance to play lucky dip - to fish for prizes, three goes for one Euro.  The mother talks enthusiastically about the drying herbs in the courtyard outside and how they always come for the summer.  Her daughter chuckles at having visitors to play her game.  We fish for prizes.  And we come away blessed.

27 August 2012

TESSERAE - 3 - Lago di Vico, Lazio

Lago di vico

E mezzogiorno.  Un venticello sofia tra le foglie.  Ci sta una tavola libera e mi siedo. 

The faded white plastic of the chair is rough to the touch; the surface of the table is dull to the midday sun; my bottle of Peroni perspires, shiny beads of water sliding down the glass.  Shining.

A man, tattooed like a frescoed apse, his long thin hair tressed at his back, reads Il Corriere dello Sport at the next table, an empty coffee cup at his elbow.  An elderly couple take another table, sitting, their heads up, not talking.   

The barman brings my sandwich: slices of prosciutto crudo between two solid and crusty shims of roman bread wrapped in a paper napkin.  The ham is salty, and has a smoky tang; the bread is compact, chewy, dry, without oil or butter, and yet it is good, and fresh.  The light, frothy beer is necessary to soften the crumbs and lubricate the jaws; the sparkles fizz in my mouth.

The elderly couple are served coffee: two tiny cups, barely mouthfuls.  They still don’t talk.  Strange love.

On the beach below, children laugh and chase, squabble and cry.  Parents call them, scold them, dry them, feed them.

I turn the pages of my dappled Repubblica, following the headlines of fiscal reform, political discourses, turning the pages past the cronaca nera, past the regional news, through the arts columns.  I open the magazine and read about Stanley Kubrick and St Albans, as his ex driver and general factotum (for thirty years) Emilio d'Alessandro tells his story.  "Childwickbury" ("un enorme tenuta di campagna nel Hertfordshire") reads oddly in Italian.  Odd enough in English, but odder still in the tight prose of Italian journalism.  Curious how Childwickbury, which is a few minutes from my home, crops up here, in a quiet bar in central Italy.  Kubrick is not one I associate with Italy, despite his respect for Fellini.

The frescoed man smokes a cigarette.  The taint is almost pleasant at this hour, in this place, like a rural bonfire, acrid but acceptably natural.  Italian cigarettes, rolled from tobacco grown in the fields near here, seem less surgical and chemical than English ones.  Or maybe it’s the calm, open space.  The kippered ham.  The salty beer.

Nobody talks.  Each to his own.  We sift our sands; think our thoughts.  The elderly couple rise and drift away.  She bids me good day, Dottore.

Later, I dive in the lake.  The water fizzes; like sparkling mineral water.  Lake Vico is a deeply filled caldera (containing over 250 million cubic metres of water), surrounded by densely green hills.  At 507 metres above sea level this is one of the highest lakes in Italy.  Its wooded slopes harbour one of the southernmost beech forests anywhere, profiting from the cool temperatures of the hills, which rise to over 1000 metres, though the obvious hill, Monte Venere, a modest but stereotypical volcanic cone on the north shore of the lake, peaks at 838 metres (and put this next to Scafell Pike, the highest point in England, which touches 978 metres). 

I dive in the lake.  I swim with perch and pike, and a handful of human spry.  There’s a luxurious solace in this water.  A svasso maggiore (Great Crested Grebe) paddles and submerges around me, seemingly unconcerned by the high-spirited but well controlled children of a large church party nearby.  A pale greenish hue wraps around me below the surface, but dissolves into pearl and lapis lazuli as I surface.  The frescoed man swims past; his paint dissolving in the water; his days of glory smudged now. 

Later still, we pack and retire, leaving the beach where Amanda was forty, the children were tripping tots, winding away up into the beech woods where we picnicked on cassoulet, bread and wine, and down our odyssey through the chestnuts to the Cassia.

Then we pick up the scent of fire, the tang of smoked ham and kippered cigar.  Ash and smashed orange glass align the road.  The sour taste of carelessness taints the air.  Burned roadsides tell the tale of a smoking summer.  So often we watched the careering Canadairs of the past, showering flames with belly tons of lake waters, fighting the wind and the flames, steering into the heat and smoke of deliberate and accident arson alike.

The shame of it is that the burning discovers another layer of shame: a confusion of broken glass, discarded bottles, tins, molten plastic and half consumed litter bears witness to something unsettled within the clockwork society. 

The stale hint of tobacco in the air, the scent of a metal jacket, disconcerts. The roadsides bear scars that will heal, though the hurt remains.

However, if Vico is an example, eventually the burns will cool, and I will sit in the shade again.  Eyes wide shut.


Umbria I - Assisi

The Heart of Italy - Part I

La Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

On September 26th, 1997, starting at 2.30am, Italy suffered a series of heart attacks.  The furred up arteries of her heartland were racked with shocks which caused devastation in and around Assisi, the home town of St Francis, patron saint of Italy.  The great basilica, with Giotto’s 13th century frescos of the life of the saint, was seriously damaged and much of the vaulted ceilings fell in ruins.  In the neighbouring hills, monasteries and villages were ravaged and, as with a serious cardiac arrest, there was fear, pain, and death.

The Cloister of the Basilica of St Francis

Fortunately the paramedics, doctors and nurses worked tirelessly and brilliantly and the green heart of Italy is still beating.  Some might even say its health has been improved, and like a reformed smoker, Assisi is pink and shiny, clean and bright, getting up early to greet the day and still having the energy to stay up late at night.  The basilica is in top condition, and the miraculous cycle of frescos has been restored for all to admire, so we can still see young Frank handing his father his fine clothes in the presence of the Bishop, and the remarkable proportions and movements of the doves, quails and sparrows coming to feed from his careworn hands.

Reflections on St Francis

Some say, however, there has been an element of Disneyfication, so that Assisi, with its crowds, is more a medieval theme park than a living museum.  It’s too smart and shiny, and, again like some reformed smokers, there’s a zealous cleanness about it that doesn’t quite convince.  In fact, the town is craving for a puff of smoke, a taint of tawdriness in the darker corners, and that touch of danger that comes from risky practice.

Tempting goodies to catch the eye

You can sense the tensions in the shop windows – a material world of glittering creations is on sale here, from plaster Saints to enticing cakes; figurines for cribs to hand-painted pottery.  On the steps of the great church of Santa Chiara a group of brothers wait for opening time, their watches and mobile phones not quite in keeping with their simple habits and sandals.

On the steps of Santa Chiara

For me there’s interest in these contradictions, but I tend to prefer the other places, not quite so pretty, not quite so frequented.  However, I am not complaining – Assisi is a wonder; a treasure trove of medieval art and architecture, from the imposing Rocca Maggiore that dominates the hill to the cloisters of San Damiano below.  And you do not have to wander far up the stony veins that lead into the piazza to get away from the swirling, chattering masses, and to find symbolic peace within the walls and gardens.

A Peace Niche within the walls of Assisi

And one special place, not far from Assisi, that also suffered in the landquake, is the Abbey of Sassovivo (living rock – because of the clearwater spring there).  This monastery, which tops a spur on the wooded slopes of 1100m Monte Aguzzo, commands a view across the city of Foligno and up towards Monte Subasio and Assisi. 

The Abbey of Sassovivo, 520 metres above sea level

It was founded by Benedictines around the year 1,000, and was an important centre of scholarship in the fourteenth century, although it went into decline in the fifteenth.  Today it is the home of a small group of The Little Brothers of Jesus, followers of Charles de Foucauld.  It is being lovingly restored, but work is slow.  Central to the complex is a beautiful Romanesque cloister, the work of Pietro De Maria in 1229, who constructed it in Rome to be brought here and assembled. 

Part of the Cloister at Sassovivo

I marvel at the idea of an upmarket medieval Ikea, with the monks choosing the design from a vellum catalogue and a team of donkeys employed to deliver the goods.  It consists of 128 double columns, with 58 arches, around an ornate well (dating from 1340, although redesigned in 1623).  Today the silent shade is skewed, as though the hand of God has lifted and twisted it slightly but left it whole, respecting its integrity and value as a place of contemplation.  A solitary brother studies in the cool.  The coloured marbles, pink limestone and threads of mosaic catch the sunlight and reflect it back to the blue sky.  Nothing stirs, except for a tiny tremor in my heart. 

Il Chiostro - Sassovivo

26 August 2012

TESSERAE - 2 - Sutri


A full grown human being may contain a gallon of blood. A full blown bull will contain six.  Gallons.  If my hired Lancia ran on blood I could do three hundred miles on that.

The Amphitheatre at Sutri

The small (5,000 souls) town of Sutri would not exist if it had not been for pyroclastic flows of red tuff with black scoriae from the volcano of Vico a couple of hundred thousand years ago.  Since then, two streams, the Promonte and the Rotoli, have worn their ways through the rock to create, on the one part, the defendable promontory which supports the town, and on the other the route of the Imperial Via Cassia (here a part of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim way from Canterbury to Rome) and an Etruscan necropolis and ancient amphitheatre.

This arena, fifty metres by forty, was carved from the living tuff, an impressive reversal of conventional building technique; and this was done about two thousand years ago. Impressive?  How often have you looked at a rocky hill and thought, "That would make a good amphitheatre if only I excavate about 18,000 cubic metres of volcanic rock?  It would be especially cool if I could do it without computer models or JCBs?"  Trained architects, and Kevin McClouds, do this most of the time.  But two thousand years ago it must have taken some nerve.  Or perhaps a deal of bullish confidence?

And for what?  A mere two days travel south and you could attend all those bread and circus events at the Flavian Amphitheatre (aka the Colosseum); a week or so of exotic animals, pinging up on elevators from the stench below, trampling Christians and other undesirables into the sandy floor to the downward thrust of a hundred thousand thumbs.  Couple that with some unbridled sex in the stews of the Suburra, and then the long hike back to the farm.  Why dig an amphitheatre here?

Well, who knows?  Sutri was, for a time, an important place.  One of the principal towns of the Etruscan world, it changed hands several times – even twice on one day, once.  And local authorities like to make their mark, don’t they?  Even two millennia ago there would have been some inflated councillor, past his prime and eager to impose his family name on the community in perpetuity, who might have pushed through the planning permission, brought in a friendly engineer (probably smarting from some other lost contract) and hitched his daughter to the contractor.  Before you could say “Ire Sutrium” the site’s been acquired, excavated, defined, refined and embellished.

And then? 

A good sacrifice would be called for.  Something spectacular.  Something memorable.

Bring on the bulls……

The Etruscans, ever handy with an adze, had excavated tombs in the adjacent tuff for centuries.  Some became toolsheds, some donkey stables and some garages, though for a while most of them were tombs.

But one became a Mithraeum.  The cult of Mithra, originally a Persian, or Zoroastrian, interest, was picked up by the Greeks and caught on amongst the Roman military.  At one point there were about 700 Mithraea in the Rome area, all associated with tauroctony (the killing of bulls) and wherever possible underground and mysterious.

Here, at Sutri, the Mithraeum is in an enlarged and complex Etruscan burial chamber, about a hundred metres from the amphitheatre, under the cliffs crowned with a sacred wood of ilex and arbutus.  The altar sits below a sacrificial chamber, to which the beasts would have been dragged and cajoled, to shuffle off their mortal coils to satisfy the sanguinary thirsts of ignorance and pride. 

Six gallons.  Thirty litres.  Fresh, warm, bright red, sweetly sickly smelling blood coursing down the specially created channels over the initiates and down the runnel past the benches and the triclinia where the dignitaries awaited their feast.  Thirty litres.  Perhaps a litre for every man within the gloomy entrails of these rocks.

Then, and only when the bleeding stopped, the worthy citizens of Sutri would gorge themselves on beans.

Local beans cured Emperor Charlemagne's gout